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Friday, 30 November 2007

DVD Of The Week: 30 Rock (2007)

Sometimes you don't want - or need - big action blockbusters or violent hokum, sometimes only a good chuckle will do and that's where 30 Rock comes in.

Currently showing on Channel 5 over here in the UK on Thursday evenings, it's already into its second award-winning season in the US. However production of that season has been suspended because of the current writers' strike in the States.

The first couple of episodes were mildly amusing, but it was only the enormous praise this series had received from a wide variety of sources I respect that made me stick with it. And, boy, am I glad I did. This is a series that just gets stronger and stronger.

The show's name from the address of NBC: 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

It follows the lives of the cast and crew of a comedy sketch show (loosely based, I guess, on Saturday Night Live which star Tina Fey used to be head writer for), focussing primarily on Liz Lemon (Fey), the show's head writer, her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) and the new addition, slightly crazed ex-movie star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan).

Pitched somewhere between Friends and The Office (the British version), it is a mix of satire and parody as well as clever wordplay and visual gags.

I'd guess about a third of the topical television references are probably lost on an average British viewer (e.g. me), but that hasn't marred my enjoyment because the lines come so slick and fast that you either get what they were getting at anyway or the banter has moved on before you realise you've missed something.

While you may only get one or two actual laugh-out-loud moments in any one 25-minute episode, there are enough moments of pure genius in this series to make you realise this is a winner.

Tina Fey, who happens to be super cute, is also known as a big Star Wars fan and so gets in some good geek jokes as well - which never does any harm!

Rather oddly, this two-disc DVD collection (Volume 1) features 16 of the season's 21 episodes. Perhaps Volume 2 will beef up the remaing five episodes with a horde of extra features - something lacking from the first volume.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

My Life And Roleplaying: Elric On My Mind!

Until I actually started reading Michael Moorcock's series of Elric novels the other week, I could have sworn I had already read at least one. I thought I knew so much about the character, his demon, soul-sucking sword and his master The Chaos Lord Arioch, but reading the books made me realise that all my knowledge was second or third hand.

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, especially around the time I was an active member of The Dark Tower gaming club in Tunbridge Wells and the first hardback Deities & Demigods supplement had come out with characters from Elric, the Cthulhu mythos and Nehwon statted up like the Monster Manual, Elric's influence was everywhere.

There was something about the Elric stories - more even than Fritz Leiber's Nehwon at that time - that spoke to gamers, I guess.

Every other munchkin player was swinging some variant of Stormbringer around his head or calling on 'Arioch' for aid. Every dungeon had its eight-pointed chaos symbols warning us of trouble ahead. And I'm sure, at least once, I fought against 'clakars' - the winged apes that bothered Elric in his underground adventure in The Weird of The White Wolf.

Of course, we can't forget that it was Moorcock who coined the concept of a battle of Law versus Chaos (rather than the more traditional Good versus Evil) which helped shape the whole D&D alignment system.

But, the largest influence Elric had in moulding my journey on the Dungeons & Dragons route, was in Dave Hargrave's fantastic Arduin Grimoire trilogy (the first of the "trilogy of trilogies" for his popular Arduin roleplaying campaign).

Here he spoke, albeit it teasingly briefly, about the seven and a half year campaign (across three hells) to rescue his own character Elric, Baron and Lord of The House of The Dragon Tower, from "the very clutches of the Lord of The Undead".

This struck me - and still does - as possibly the ultimate campaign idea (going into Hell to rescue your buddy) and since I heard mention of it in the first Grimoire (in the late 70s) it's been a campaign idea I've sought to emulate, but - like the cosmic themes I mentioned before - have never been "in the right place" to do so.

The most recent Elric novels I read - The Weird of The White Wolf and The Vanishing Tower - are pure old skool, role-playing fodder. The end of the former sees Elric being betrayed by a "member of his party", the wizard Theleb K'aarna of Pan Tang. Elric's quest for revenge carries him all the way through The Vanishing Tower and into the first part of the book I am currently reading: The Bane Of The Black Sword.

As I slowly get back into gaming, it's this sort of epic adventure I dream of partaking in or running, that years later I can read an old HeroPress entry about it, while sipping a cuppa in the old roleplayer's home, and reminisce with a broad grin on my face about the day my character faced off against The Lord of The Undead to liberate the soul of his best friend!

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

We Have A Winner...

... and it's not me again, for the second year running.

Our 2007 Formula De League reached its thrilling climax last night with a tense race around Sepang in Malaysia, which saw Pete's Mehatt Mecoate and Nick's Jock Saway - both equal in points at the top of the driver's championship - battling their way around the tricky course, until Jock got disheartened in the final sequence of bends and Mehatte took the chequered flag and the championship!

In the constructor's championship, Nick's Team Flamers stormed to victory ahead of Pete's Team Blue Clover, while my own Team Zerro were nowhere to be seen.

After his guest appearance last month, Steve was unable to attend this month but has great designs on silverware for next next year - with Team Classic Rock - and has asked us to draw up a time table for 2008 that he can work around.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Unearthing A Piece of History...

At the weekend, while Rachel was away at a university reunion, I was taken to Rochester by her parents. Rochester is a wonderful Dickensian jewel between the run-down grime of Strood and the industrial wasteland of Chatham.

It boasts an incredible High Street of "olde worlde shoppes" that tourists love, with crooked doors and slanting walls, set against the backdrop of a cathedral and a castle.

The best shop there is The Rochester Armoury, selling reasonably priced reproduction suits of armour, swords, Civil War muskets etc, but just along the road was a vertitable Aladdin's Cave bookstore with stacks - floor to ceiling - and mazes of books filling multiple rooms and spilling out, on rickety tables, onto the pavement.

Burrowing to the back I found the "science fiction and fantasy section" - remarkably all pretty much filed alphabetically by author (most impressive for a secondhand book store) in a claustrophobic backroom with enough walk space for one bibliophile at a time between the floor piles and the bowing shelves.

Having gone through the shelves - and finding every author I was seeking, but no new titles that caught my eye - I hunkered down to a small collection of strange graphic novels and old Star Trek fan works... and what should I find there, but an old copy of Fantazia from 1990 featuring one of my background articles on HeroPress!

Fantazia described itself as "the definitive superhero magazine", and this was a pretty niche market even in those pre-Internet days, so I kinda knew its days were numbered when I signed on... but their publishers (Pegasus) had agreed to publish HeroPress and wanted me to write background articles for every issue to help promote the play-by-mail game. This particular issue has an article about "Nick Law", the Doc Savage of our universe (and Nick's character from when this was our home Villains & Vigilantes RPG campaign).

It was never a great magazine - being a mish-mash of press releases, part-interviews (always tagged with an irritating "this is part of a longer interview..." line, rubbing the reader's face in the fact that - with an Internet to talk of - they would never know what else the interviewee would have to say on that particular topic), pretty decent art, gaming material, comic book news, information on forthcoming films etc - but looking back I'm very proud of my contribution and, through rose-tinted glasses, of the role Pegasus took in the life of HeroPress.

Monday, 26 November 2007

The Sarah Janes Adventures: The Lost Boy

A characteristic of children's television is its fast pacing, plot points aren't lingered on as stories race along trying to hold onto their audience's attention.

The Lost Boy, the final two-parter of this first season of The Sarah Jane Adventures, exploits this trait brilliantly, throwing curves balls left, right and centre - tying up threads from the rest of the season into a neat little bow, pulling out surprises and return appearances at a speed that can make your head spin.

It's been a struggle, but this show has got stronger with each storyline, hopefully shaking off its "Doctor Who for kids" label and finally, with this story, establishing itself - if not on the same level - as being in the same ball park as the parent show.

As well as the issue of Luke's "real parents", The Lost Boy also reveals the secret of the annoyingly omnipowerful supercomputer Mr Smith and welcomes Maria's dad Alan into Sarah Jane's new family of "defenders of The Earth".

Not only would I like to see this series rerun at a time when older Dr Who fans could get to see it (how about Saturday teatime - instead of that awful Robin Hood nonsense?); with the two parts of each story merged inot a single 50-minute episode, but also some definite crossover with Dr Who - should Sarah Jane reappear on that show let her be with Maria, Luke or Alan, for instance.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, The Lost Boy is the best episode of the season (always good to finish on a high), even if this week's planetary Apocalypse is very similar to previous ones Sarah Jane has managed to avert. It doesn't pay to think too hard about why this particular Apocalypse would have been "acceptable" to the Big Bad, but the last one - in Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane - wouldn't have been!!!

This episode also sees the welcome, albeit brief, return of an old friend (no, not The Doctor) and hopefully leaves the door open for a new series...

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Six Of The Best With ALEX CF

Alex Cf is an incredibly talented 26-year-old musician, writer and artist from Brighton, whose work has appeared in HeroPress before, and whose blog - The Art of Alex Cf - is logged down the right hand side of the page - so you can all keep up with the news of his latest creations. He creates the sort of art that a Lovecraft or Victorian sci-fi geek would kill to get their hands on.

On his blog, he describes what he does: "I like to create items and objects from a past that wasn't quite; to fashion the things you wish existed in forgotten attics or secret rooms, dust covered relics of a time when the world was the same - but not quite, an age of wonder and intrigue."

And if that doesn't pique your interest, perhaps you should check your pulse... you might already be an exhibit in one of Alex's works!

(1) First things first - how did you get started as an "assemblage artist"?


A few years ago, I took some time out from my comics to experiment a little. After drawing comics for five years I was worried I'd basically forgotten how to do anything other than draw the same character over and over again.

I started this project called "the Historian" (no relation to the Elizabeth Kostova novel) about a Victorian time traveller who collected artifacts from the past. I constructed a vampire legacy box; the remnants of an aristocratic vampire.

Five issues into my most recent series of comics, I decided that I'd had enough of drawing oddities, and decided to start constructing them. I suddenly regained that thirst to create that I'd lost through my comics, and the rest is history (no pun intended..)

(2) What proportion of the elements in your works of art is made from scratch, how much is 'found materials' and where do you find the bits and bobs to make up your incredible eye candy?

It really depends on the piece. My cryptozoology pieces are all handmade using various resins, clays etc. I hand make all the documents, I fill diaries with fictional science, hand make faux daguerreotypes. A lot of the larger "steampunk" pieces are scavenged from junk shops, some of it I cut and carve myself, sometimes I see something like a clock mechanism, gut it out, its innards re-assembled as the mechanical brain of an automaton.

I'm a magpie, but I also try to remove the piece from its original setting, add to it, modify it. The whole point of my work is giving life to objects that no longer serve a purpose. They become part of my little make believe world.

(3) What is your process - do you find a piece and get an idea from that or do you have an idea for a creation and so track down the perfect pieces to use in that design?

I get an idea first, in fact I have a very long list of ideas. I'm very lucky most of the time, I walk the streets at night digging through dumpsters for odds and ends; junk stores, car boot sales. Usually the original idea gets modified if I cannot find exactly what was etched in my brain, but usually I can modify something enough to fit within my vision.

(4) What literature, music, films and other media inspire you?

Wow, where do I start? Setting a scene is the best thing for me. I do have my own world which I work within: my steampunk metropolis. I'm currently writing a series of short stories to accompany a set of illustrations. I try to imagine that my work serves a purpose there.

Studio Ghibli; the novels of China Mieville; Ian Macleod; Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series; Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos writers such as August Derleth are also obviously a big influence on my Miskatonic Research cases.

I guess with all artists you try to create your own niche, but subconsciously you take the ideas you love from other authors and artists and superimpose those within your world view. I try not to take direct influence, that would be pointless.

(5) Before you became an assemblage artist, you wrote and drew graphic novels, but stopped when you realised you didn't actually like comic books. Why? What are your issues with that medium?

It's a very long story. Basically back in 2000, I was a graphic designer. I soon fell ill with M.E, a condition which caused me a lot of pain and fatigue. It destroyed my life, I had to give up my job, and everything crumbled around me.

It was a year later that I started drawing, constantly. I'd have two days a week where I didn't feel like crap, and everyday I'd draw.

Within a year I'd drawn a series of comic books and was well on the way to another. I got published and ripped off, and then self-published from then on.

Six years later I'd put out 18 comic books, an action figure line, umpteen t-shirts and prints etc. But I had no passion for it. I'd struggle to get through an issue, even though I was in love with the story. I guess the comics had come out of a need to get better, and after those seven years, I'd managed to do that: I'd got better, changed everything.

I looked back on it and realised it had been this massive rehabilitation. I no longer needed it to support me, and so I just stopped. One day, half way through a page, just gave up. It was incredibly cathartic!

I still draw, but not in that style. And I'm finishing the series I was working on as a book. It allows a lot more room for dialogue and ideas. I never want to limit myself to just assemblage art, because i know full well that the bubble may burst.

I'm already dealing with plagiarism, its incredibly frustrating. And so I write and draw too. I hope to self-publish my first book early next year.

(6) What are you working on at the moment and what ambitions do you have to create the ultimate piece of assemblage art?

Ultimate piece? Well, I guess the project I'm working on now as part of a large commission for a steampunk anthology novel is pretty ultimate... it's certainly the biggest I've made!

I am working on a series of pieces called "the anathema mechanism" combining all of my loves in a set of very macabre creations - some may not like them, who knows.

Steampunk is a little limiting in some respects so I have to step outside this. A lot of people have recently discovered this genre and it won't be long before the market is saturated with wooden and brass objects.

Steampunk is very cool at the moment, but it won't last, it will fall back into obscurity like any fad, and I think that's the best place for it. Steampunk is incredibly important to me as a literary genre, it encompasses most of my passions. I don't want it to be destroyed and I wouldn't want a part in that.

As for ambitions: well, I have an upcoming exhibition for my Alice in Wonderland interpretations, an online gallery and hopefully a small exhibition tour for my anathema project. Hopefully some film and TV work which will be amazing. I'm writing this novella series, and various other nonsensical rubbish which may or may not see the light of day!

I just try to keep myself busy, constantly tinkering away!

Saturday, 24 November 2007

It's All About The Characters!

It's not often these days that anything lives up to its PR spin, but Disneyland Paris had promised "more characters" for its 15th anniversary and Rachel and I couldn't move this week without bumping into one "celebrity" character or another!

It clearly helped that we were staying in the Disneyland Hotel, the best in the area, which sits right on the edge of the main park and where the characters join you for breakfast and dinner, when not wandering the corridors entertaining the young (and young at heart).

A fantastic five-day break from reality; we are now home and catching up on everything we missed. Eventually, for those who are interested, there will be an account of our adventures over at Burning Daylight, along with some pictures.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Top of The Pile: Fantastic Four #551

The Fantastic Four - my all-time favourite superhero team - has been through the creative wringer of late, and not in a good, exciting way.

Like much of the mainstream Marvel Universe, they've been badly hit by the fallout from the Civil War storyline - Reed acting like an ass, him and Sue going off, Ben's pointless jaunt to Paris, and the introduction of Storm and The Black Panther (surely, the dullest comic book couple ever?) to the team.

The only decent thing that came out of that mess, that actually seemed in character for the comic, was the introduction of Reed's "super-formula" for predicting the collapse of civilization and his list of 100 things that needed to be done to put everything right. Now, that was a very cool touch and almost justified his totally off-kilter actions during the Civil War nonsense and its aftermath.

But with Fantastic Four #551, things seem to be getting back to normal. The proper team are back together, bantering like the good old days, and guess who they come up against straight out the blocks? Dr Doom - Marvel's best villain. And not just Doom, but a Doom from 75 years in the future, who has travelled back with 'future' Namor and 'future' Black Panther to avert a global crisis he claims Reed will be responsible for... because of his "to do" list!

There's even a twist on the final splash page that made me hungry for the next issue - a rare treat from a Marvel mainstream title these days (except for Iron Fist and Marvel's cosmic/Annihilation range).

Long may this return to form last!

If you are looking for an alternate British view of the American comic book scene you should check out the Paradox Comics Group, a new blog set up by the store in Poole I order my monthly comics from.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

It's A Whole New World!

Back when I was able to work, I did some local pre-publicity for The New World, which was due out in 2005, because of its connections with Gravesend.

I was helping to publicise The Maritime Heritage Trail around the coast of Kent and Terrence Malick's film retold the tale of Pocahontas and John Smith. The Native American princess, as you may know, is buried in Gravesend and her statue, at St George's Church, is on the heritage trail.

Unfortunately, because I was taken ill I never got to see the film upon its release and so chose to view it on DVD this week as a loose companion piece to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto.

This is a total contrast to that masterpiece, where Apocalypto grabs you from the off, Malick's trademark languid, picaresque style of storytelling - which worked so well in the poetic Thin Red Line - fails to engage on any level.

The cast mumble their way through the script, which is occasionally broken up with bloodless, unrealistic fight sequences, almost on autopilot. While the story seemingly touches on all the key moments in the Pocahontas/John Smith relationship, you just don't care, having no empathy for either of the characters.

Sure it's a clever play on the "civilized" naturals (Native Americans) versus the "barbaric" invaders (the English), but I now have an idea how Rachel felt watching the ewok movies!

On a positive note, Malick makes great use of the "untamed wilderness" for some visually appealing landscape shots and backgrounds but that isn't really reason enough to sit through this 130 minute cure for insomnia.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Top Shelf: Challenge

While Different Worlds remains my favourite roleplaying magazine, especially in the fantasy genre, Challenge came pretty close to being the science-fiction equivalent in the early 1990s.

It always seemed slightly more crunchy, but probably because the systems it covered dealt with more technical matters (e.g. Traveller, Twilight 2000, Dark Conspiracy, Cyberpunk, Battletech etc).

This was really Nick's magazine, being our sci-fi expert (particularly for the Traveller articles), but I would often borrow huge swatches of his Challenge collection to catch up on the latest d6 Star Wars or Space 1889 articles. It even touched on Call of Cthulhu sometimes, which, while slightly incongruous, was always welcome.

Produced by GDW (the publishers - at the time - of Traveller, Twilight 2000 etc), Challenge was a good mix of short scenarios, background material and rules suggestions, along with the requisite review section.

Like all good roleplaying magazines, Challenge has now sadly gone the way of the dodo, but copies still pop up on eBay for those looking for another window in to the Golden Age of roleplaying.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

DVD Of The Week: Apocalypto (2006)

Whatever other issues people may have with Mel Gibson, there's no denying he knows how to make a beautiful looking film.

Apocalypto is set in the jungles of Central America, in the declining years of the exotic and elegant Mayan culture, and - in true Mel style - is shot entirely in the Mayan language (with subtitles... so you have to pay attention).

With a multi-layered script filled with foreshadowing, metaphor, allegory and omens, it tells the tale of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young hunter, taken from the jungle by slavers - along with many of his fellow villagers - to the stone city; there to be sacrificed to appease bloodthirsty gods.

It is a story about change and contrast, fathers passing on their duties to sons, the clash of the idyllic jungle lifestyle with the brutal ways of the city folk.

Jaguar Paw has to escape, to rescue his pregnant wife and small child from the hole in the ground they hid in when the slavers attacked, and it is this desire that drives his journey back... especially when the rain starts and the hole begins to fill with water.

An intense, shocking and violent film, Apocalypto is so well put together and performed that you have to remind yourself every now and again that it is a work of fiction and not some National Geographic fly-on-wall documentary!

As events race towards the only conclusion possible, fuelled by a prophecy delivered by a creepy, plague-stricken child about an hour in to the film, the blood and gore become the paint Mel uses to decorate his beautiful, sylvan canvas while the story wraps you in its branches because there is nothing to take you out of the moment.

With no big Hollywood faces or egos to distract you and filmed on location in Mexico, this is about as authentic as you are going to get without a time machine. And proves, once again, with technology as it is, CGI sets will never replace the majority of actual built sets that performers can see and interact with.

Apocalypto is an object lesson in great film making, as well as a fascinating insight the possible daily lives of a lost civilization.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Disneyland Europe, November 2007


I Am Beowulf!





"I am the ripper, tearer, slasher. I am the teeth in the darkness. Mighty strength, and lust, and power! I am Beowulf!"

I really want to see this - but the last time I watched anything in 3D (Honey I Shrunk The Audience, at Disneyland Paris last year) it made me feel extremely seasick... and that was only about 15 minutes long! Guess I'll wait and see if there's a 2D screening round here or wait for the DVD release.

A lot of the pre-release Internet chatter has got hung up on the technology used to produce this film, with tech-monkeys blathering on about how you can't call it animation - it's motion-capture (or mo-cap, if you don't mind coughing up a bit of sick in your mouth).

But to be honest, it could have been made with animated Lego bricks, what's really important is whether it's a good version of the old classic or not - and given it's a Neil Gaiman script that's a pretty strong recommendation to start with.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Wham! Bam! Jean-Claude Van Damme!

There are two kinds of plots in Jean-Claude Van Damme films - the "revenge for slain family member" and "the secret martial arts tournament"; just the settings and props change.

The Quest is the latter, but given a pulp adventure twist by setting it in the mid-1920s. Jean-Claude is a New York streetfighter and Fagin figure to a gang of homeless children who, through a string of unfortunate events, ends up in chains on a boat loaded with illegal guns.

He is 'liberated' by British pirate Dobbs (Roger Moore), sold into slavery, trained as a martial artist, then reteams with Dobbs six months later before launching into his "quest" for the golden dragon - the prize at the end of the legendary Ghan-gheng global martial arts challenge.

The invitation-only event is held in a "lost city" in Tibet, oddly named The Lost City (!); but then Jean-Claude's opponent's in the competition are all nameless as well - known only by the country they are representing! They are not people to fight, but obstacles to be overcome.

This is a very simplistic, and strangely disjointed, little movie with several major plot holes and undeveloped characters, but it's a harmless hour-and-a-half of period fun (think Room With A View with more fighting) that makes for a pleasant, inoffensive diversion. If you were expecting anything more, then perhaps you shouldn't have been watching a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie?

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Hold On To Your Lunch!

An unexpected treasure among the haul of excellent DVDs I got for my birthday yesterday was this 'delightful' gem from Paul - Grindhouse Trailer Classics.

A two-hour compilation of 55 movie trailers from the golden age of exploitation movies (i.e. the 1970s), plus a 20-minute introduction to the subject from the gorgeous B-movie actress and TV host Emily Booth.

Grindhouse - named for the American cinema circuit that took over from the burlesque shows that entertained all and sundry with a grab bag of sleezy, shocking and lowest common denominator flicks before the age of home video - is making a comeback thanks to the attention of modern movie makers like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Eli Roth.

Who'd have thought a collection of adverts could be such fun? But to be honest, the trailers for these grim 'classics' were probably the best thing about them as part of the fun of the exploitation films was their outrageous publicity, making outlandish claims that they rarely lived up to.

Grindhouse is a broad church - like pulp - covering a multitude of sins, although tends to conjure up certain imagery more often than others.

While the films promoted in these trailers aren't simply horror, most are not exactly politically correct either! Genres covered range from girl gangs, women in prison, and 'torture porn' (as aped by Eli Roth in his Hostel films) to blaxploitation, sex comedies and a shock doc about sex change operations!

What is surprising about these adverts isn't just the subject matter, but the graphic nature of what is shown in the trailers, compared to the vanilla, corporate trailers we see nowadays - from a cornucopia of lady bumps to some stomach-churning, low-budget mutilation.

Viewed with 21st Century irony - and possibly a few beers - this DVD is a mind-blowing time capsule of an era where, genuinely, "anything goes" was a film maker's mantra and a lack of budget was no handicap to an over-the-top idea.

I'd heard of more of these films than I was expecting when I started the disc, had seen a couple and actually own one on DVD: the deliciously bloody, and highly recommended, samurai epic Shogun Assassin (a liberal live-action retelling of the classic Lone Wolf and Cub manga).

Friday, 16 November 2007

Star Wars Is True!

Several weeks ago Rachel and I spent a pleasant - if exhausting - evening looking after the children of some friends who, the day before, had been to London to see The Star Wars Exhibition.

The excited five-year-old told me, quite categorically, that having now seen the Star Wars clothes, weapons, characters etc he realised that it was all real and it really did happen "a long, long time ago".

How cool is that? To see the world through a child's eyes must be the most incredible thing; to have your perception unpolluted by cultural prejudices and hang-ups and the cynicism that comes with growing old.

Sometimes I wish I was five again! Instead I am 41 today and so it was my turn - accompanied by my own Princess Leia - to travel to that galaxy far, far away (i.e. London) to view The Star Wars Exhibition.

And I can see how young William might mistake it for a museum, set out in the elegant corridors of the old County Hall, with different planets represented in different rooms by displays of costumes, props and models, it is like a museum.

The central room has a lifesize Naboo starfighter and several podracers, while the entrance corridor holds Anakin's podracer from Episode I.

The connecting corridors are lined with concept art and everywhere screens play clips from the six films - to get you "into the mood" (if you weren't already). Both Rachel and I were surprised by just how many models there were from the Prequels - given the emphasis on their CGI environments.

It took us a good couple of hours to see everything - the information panels are clearly aimed at children so are not text heavy and don't take long to read - including a breather at the "spectacular" (their words) Jedi Training School demonstration; a short 'stunt show' taking six children from the audience and teaching them to swing lightsabers and battle Vader and Sidious. The period setting made it all the more impressive and the Jedi trainers were suitably light-hearted (without mocking).

It was a great, entertaining, way to spend my birthday morning and photographs of some of the displays can be found here. And now I'm starting to wonder if William wasn't right and all this didn't really happen "a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"...

Thursday, 15 November 2007

My Life And Roleplaying: The Whole World Is A Sourcebook!

As a creative pre-teen I sat in my chord shorts in prep school assembly seeking inspiration from the hymns we sang... just what was the to hit/damage bonus of a "bow of burning gold", what effect did "arrows of desire" have and just how fast was a "chariot of fire"?

In 1977, as well as discovering Star Wars, I had been introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and the whole world was suddenly "research material".

Everywhere I looked there were potential magic items or monsters for characters to contend with in dungeons drawn from every imaginable source.

My prep school co-Dungeoneer, Tom, even ran me through a D&D adventure based on the first season of The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy (a radio serial he had introduced me to and also had a major impact on my life).

Television and books (particularly the sword and sorcery tales of Fritz Leiber, and a little later Harry Turtledove's first Elabon stories - Wereblood and Werenight) shaped many adventures and characters in those early years; then later comic books begame a major source of material as our games moved away from straight fantasy into the four-colour world of superheroes.

From these I still have three comic book standards that I would one day love to weave into a roleplaying game: time travel, alternate dimensions and cosmic entities.

Yet somehow, even when running the postal HeroPress campaign, I have yet to squeeze them in; feeling that a campaign needs to progress 'normally' for a considerable length of time for such contrasting, incredible elements to have their full impact when introduced.

That said, all three feature heavily in The Sailor on The Seas of Fate, the second of Michael Moorcock's Elric books. Even dreamier, more surreal and more psychedelic than Elric of Melnibone, this two-day, 190-page joy had me joining Elric on a ship sailing a strange ocean that linked not islands, but worlds and planes of existence in time and space.

In a series of three adventures, Elric discovers he is but one face of The Eternal Champion, travelling to the Earth's future with three other incarnations of the Champion (Hawkmoon, Corum and Erekose) to battle two universe-threatening alien magicians; then he finds himself being chased by a Melnibonean sorcerer from history and swept up in a mythical love story; before finally taking a Heart of Darkness-style river journey to the legendary, lost birth place of his people.

These stories continue to leave me breathless, blown away by the absorbing text, the clever imagery and mental stimuli they spark in my enfeebled brain.

It also made me appreciate, perhaps, why I had never tackled such cosmic themes as I desired to in my roleplaying games - they are best left to the master storytellers!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Star Wars Film Night: The Battle For Endor (An Ewok Adventure) (1985)

Postponed from our usual Monday night slot, so we could help some friends out by babysitting, I wasn't going to let Rachel escape the last of the ewok movies that easily... after she "enjoyed" Caravan Of Courage so much!

I seem to remember The Battle For Endor being the better of the two, but my memory has let me down before and I didn't want to prejudice Rachel's opinion of the film anymore either way before it even started.

And as it happened my positive memories weren't too far off base. We both agreed that it was better than Caravan of Courage; not that that is saying much!

Some wonky blue screening and sad stop-motion aside, this is a actually a pretty decent little fantasy film which sees Cindel Twoami (Aubree Miller) and Wicket the ewok (Warwick Davis) fleeing the evil alien Marauders, who kill off Cindel's parents and brothers in the opening battle.

Set several months after the events in Caravan of Courage, Wicket has now learned to speak English (which he'd obviously forgotten by the time he meets up with Princess Leia in Return of The Jedi), which clearly helps move the story along but is still rather odd in the whole Star Wars scheme of things.

Wicket and Cindel meet up with another stranded human - Noa (Wilford Brimley) - who helps them rescue Wicket's friends from the Marauder's castle and recover a power source for his own spaceship.

The Marauders, a fully realised humanoid race with more than a passing resemblance to the Nikto, but are apparently Sanyassan, are certainly the best things in this film; although the credibility-taxing shapeshifting Sharon Osbourne-lookalike witch Charal (a career low for the great Sian Philips?) just emphasises how this faction appear to have strayed in from a different film... possibly a remake of Hawk The Slayer.

And so we draw the curtains on Rachel's introduction to the Star Wars universe, with no new live action material now expected until the end of the decade.

But hopefully these last six weeks will, if nothing else, help Rachel understand the importance of some of the artifacts we will be seeing on Friday at The Star Wars Exhibition, at County Hall in London.

In a couple of weeks, Rachel and I will now be starting a regular Lost night - screening two or three episodes of the TV show every Monday night (starting right back from the beginning of season one) to see if it makes any more sense.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

You Can't Keep A Good Zombie Down!

Ever get one of those "that was my idea" moments; when you see some film with a clever twist that you'd dreamed up years ago and never done anything about?

Well, I had one when I first came across adverts for this little beauty.

Flight Of The Living Dead - the title alone tells you pretty much what you can expect from this wonderful piece of trash cinema, recently released on DVD.

Just when you thought every aspect of the zombie genre had been milked dry; and wannabe writers like my good self were scratching around fruitlessly to come up with different take on this popular subject.

If you think about it, really, Flight Of The Living Dead is an obvious conceit, and it's hard to believe no one had tried it before... a zombie outbreak on a passenger plane at 30,000ft.

It's the ultimate "spam in a cabin", to quote legendary drive-in film critic Joe Bob Briggs.

The acting may be pretty awful and the script not much better, but once the carnage begins all the half-baked 'character stuff' is forgotten (along with logic - as guns are fired left, right and centre within the aircraft) and the bloodshed takes over. And let's be honest, that's what we watch zombie films for, isn't it?

And once the chewing, dismemberment and shooting kicks off, Flight becomes a great little horror flick. Unfortunately it takes over half an hour to get to the good stuff, but the wait is worth it!

The plane is loaded with a typical Hollywood passenger list of potential inflight snacks: a group of renegade scientists with a suspicious cargo, a cop and handcuffed wisecracking convict, a nun, a professional sportsman and his disgruntled wife, the feuding teen couples and, best cliche of all, an aged pilot making that one last flight before retirement (guess who doesn't make it out alive?).

It swings violently from classic moments (watch for the laugh-out-loud umbrella sequence) to silly (the ridiculous crash landing stands out in particular), but really it doesn't matter; it's zombies on a [melon-flipping] plane! What were you really expecting?

Monday, 12 November 2007

My Life And Roleplaying: Kickin' It Old Skool Style!

Michael Moorcock admired pulp daddy Robert E Howard's brutal barbarian Conan so much that when he set out to create his own swords and sorcery epic he wanted it to be as unlike the tales of the Cimmerian as possible.

And so, he created Elric - the doomed, feeble, albino sorceror-king kept alive by, first, mysterious narcotics and later by the evil energy of his cursed sword, Stormbringer.

I read the first of Elric books - Elric of Melnibone - in just about two days last week; I couldn't put it down. A combination of my usual insomnia and the power of the writing saw me reading at all hours of the day and night.

Moorcock proves you don't need a ponderous, phonebook-sized tome to tell a thrilling, memorable fantasy tale. In a 'mere' 190-pages Elric goes from languishing on his Ruby Throne to dealing with elemental creatures, fighting off an invasion, crossing the Young Kingdoms to find his kidnapped sweetheart and finally journeying to another plane of existence to retrieve Stormbringer at the request of the Chaos demon-god Aroich.

Outside of Tolkien's main Lord of The Rings' characters and Conan himself, Elric and his legendary sword must be two of the best known names in fantasy literature... their dreamy, nightmarish adventures seeping into all manner of related media (e.g. heavy influences on early roleplaying games from Dungeons & Dragons and Arduin to Chaosium's own Stormbringer game; to the prominent technomage in Babylon 5 universe called... Elric).

Elric of Melnibone stirred in me nostalgic memories for the books of my youth - Fritz Leiber's Nehwon tales with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser or Harry Turtledove's stories of Gerin The Fox - and the old skool fantasy roleplaying games of my teen years.

Not that I would probably want to play pure Dungeons & Dragons again, but it filled me with a hankering for that vibe, that feeling of wonder and "anything's possible" that many of today's dry, crunchy games' systems seem to stifle.

To quote that ill-researched font of all knowledge Wikipedia: "Some fans of pencil and paper role playing games use [old skool] to describe RPGs characterized by simple game mechanics and flexible rules. The character generation system in such RPGs tend to lack extensive lists of skills and abilities. Basic Dungeons & Dragons and the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons are often considered 'old school' role playing games."

All this hankering for past gaming glories has also been stoked by a couple of great rules-lite, war story-heavy fantasy gaming podcasts I've been listening to of late: my friends over at Grimm Studios and Dice Make Bonk.

Both of these eschew the attitude of some of the more snobby or 'elitist' podcasts who look down their virtual noses at "game stories" or the "tell me about your character" attitude. Personally I believe that's a central element of roleplaying games - you are creating collective stories, so why not share them? Isn't this just another form of creating fantasy literature? As long as the stories are interesting, they are as valid as any other anecdote you may care to tell.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

DVD of The Week: Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (2007)

Peter Jackson has proven that it's possible to turn large, verbose, popular fiction into great movies - but David Yates, the director Harry Potter And The Order of The Phoenix, isn't Peter Jackson.

Unsurprisingly the weakest of the Harry Potter novels makes for the least engaging of the movies.

The Order of The Phoenix is a clearly a bridge between the lighter, earlier films and the dark 'wizard war' that is to come as Harry faces his destiny and the wicked Lord Voldemort.

Generally it looks okay, as a big budget Potter blockbuster should (and the final confrontation between Voldemort and Dumbledore is pure eye candy), but the young actors don't seem as comfortable in their roles as they have in the past - suggesting that maybe this was a rushed project?

The film is a parade of disjointed scenes, packed out with a plethora of characters - most of which have few, if any, lines or input into the story - that jumps through the story with little regards to pacing or plot.

Familiar faces seem to pop in and out without rhyme nor reason and it's just left to us to piece together what's going on... but sadly theren't enough clues on screen.

With The Order of The Phoenix, JK Rowling abandoned the concept of the Harry Potter books being a metaphor for the 'hardships' of school life and brought to the page a genuine, tedious, bureaucratic authority figure in the shape of Dolores Umbridge.

While Umbridge is slightly more sinister in the cinematic form of Imelda Staunton, she's still a major irritant and a rather unoriginal character.

This was the book that stalled my unquestioning love of the Potter franchise. It had become clear that JK Rowling's publishers and editors - afraid of losing their pensions - had become too scared to suggest that maybe she should trim a hundred pages or so from her monstrous book.

In the first three novels - my favourites of the ones I have read - Rowling told three incredible year-spanning stories in less total page count than The Order of The Phoenix or any of the later tomes.

Unlike the earlier films, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix relies on its audience being fully conversant with the world of wizardry; much is left unexplained or buried in shadow (there are a lot of shadows in this film).

Although I own the last two books in the series I think it's unlikely I'll now get to read them before the next films come out, so I shall be as much in the dark as the majority of the film-going public.

I'm still looking forward to seeing Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince; but possibly not as much as I was before I saw Harry Potter And The Order of The Phoenix.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Is Stat All There Is?

Readership figures seem to have regulated themselves this month into a kind of "sine wave", with weekends being the low points and early/mid-week hitting the highs.

Why? I don't know - that's something for the sociologists and lifestyle gurus to argue over... although I suspect it has something to do with the volume of HeroPress visitors who have been reading the blog at work!

Here are the numbers for the last 30 days.

Where applicable I've included a note of last month's figures for comparison.

Visitor Numbers (as of Saturday, 10 November): 7,777 (6,953)

Average Number of Visitors Per Day: 32 (27)

Top 5 Countries of Origin:
United States 50% (34%)
United Kingdom 37% (47%)
France 3% (-)
Canada 2% (8%)
Singapore 1% (-%)

Most Popular Entry Pages: (i.e. what brought people to the site)

For this, we can take it as read that the most popular "entry page" is always going to be either the current top story or just general browsing, but after that the pages that have brought the most readers to this site have been:

1. The Sarah Jane Adventures: Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?
2. Six Of The Best With Clare Grant
3. The Dresden Files: Second City (Series Finale)
4. The Sarah Jane Adventures: Warriors of Kudlak
5. Christmas is Coming...

Sarah Jane tops the chart for the second month running while Clare remains my most read interview subject, thanks to her ever-popular Three Beautiful Things website.

The presence of two entries for the The Sarah Jane Adventures in the top five shows Doctor Who (and its spin-offs) remains a big draw ... as, surprisingly, does the axed Dresden Files TV series.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Top Of The Pile: Black Adam #3

DC titles have an air of epic grandeur about them that is lacking from most Marvel titles these days, even when dealing with such anti-heroes as Black Adam.

Three issues in to the six-issue mini-series and there's no sign of flagging.

Teth-Adam has regained his "magic word" which allows him access to his Black Adam powers, but he is still driven by grief over the loss of his beloved wife Isis and seeking a way to bring her back to life.

He has struck a deal with the imprisoned wizard Felix Faust that requires the recovery of the four parts of a broken amulet, scattered across the planet by the Marvel family (Adam's old enemies).

The first piece is in Louisiana, under the guardianship of Carter Hall (aka Hawkman) - which, naturally, leads to a spectacular airborne duel over the city.

This is grand stuff on the themes of love and loss, masterfully crafted by Peter J Tomasi and illustrated by Doug Mahnke, that just gets better and better as it draws in various elements of DC's beautiful, larger-than-life mythology.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Christmas Is Coming...

In fact, Christmas is 46 days away... but that hasn't stopped the good people at The Forbidden Planet setting some sort of record by surprising me with my first Christmas card of the year (eight days before my birthday!) It arrived this morning with their latest catalogue of goodness.

Plastic's Fantastic, But Metal Is Better...

When it comes to wargames miniatures, it takes a bit to impress me these days - especially in this age of fine, pre-painted plastics as supplied by the nice French people of Rackham.

However, a company has recently appeared on the web marketing "retro sci-fi" miniatures for its Galactic Adventures In The Fourth Dimension of The Forbidden Zone range (G.A.F.D.O.Z.)

Killer B Games, headed by Craig Rowlings, is also proposing a line of 70s British cop figures (e.g. The Sweeney). Greens for its "Geezers, Shut It!" range are already on view.

Some time ago I put in an order for the eight G.A.F.D.O.Z. figures currently available - each a reasonable £2 each - and, despite a slight delay while Craig waited for some of the pre-orders to arrive from his casters, the beauties turned up earlier this week.

Now I've been collecting metal miniatures since the 80s and I can remember when the vast majority were basically characterless lumps with a blob for a head and four limbs... but the Killer B miniatures are works of art in comparison. The detailing on the Flash Gordonesque uniforms and the range of expressions on the faces is incredible.

Until now I had rated the 28mm stylings of Copplestone, Pulp Figures, Bronze Age Miniatures and Artizan's Thrilling Tales range were the epitome of this craft, but Killer B has stolen a march on all of them with its first offerings.

However, there is one caveat... Killer B's figures are NOT 28mm. Euphemistically they could be described as a "heroic" 28mm, but they are closer to 36mm. See my amateurish 'comparison' shot below with a Jek Starkiller: Galactic Gunfighter on the right (from Killer B) next to a 28mm Pulp Figure's Chinese river pirate.


Looks like I could be moving into a whole new size of gaming... well, the old eyes are going, I suppose...

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

SAD to Happy...

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a subject of much debate - is it even a genuine condition? Don't ask me; I'm not a doctor! I just know that last winter I borrowed Nick's SAD Lamp for a few weeks and after bathing in its friendly glow, it made me feel a lot better.

This year, we here at HeroPress Towers have gone a step further. Rachel has kindly invested in a SAD Lamp for me (A Brightlight Brightspark from Lumie, if you want to get technical) and it arrived this morning.

I'm looking forward to an afternoon of letting the lamp's rays wash over me as I catch up on the latest Star Wars Action News and Geeklabel podcasts.

I was always very sceptical about the existence of SAD, and poo-pooed many of my sun-worshipping friends for not embracing the gloom as I did growing up... but since my spell in hospital I've genuinely "seen the light". It's not so much the extremes of bright sunshine and late-night darkness that can affect my fragile psyche, but the grey, glumness of an overcast afternoon that really brings the depression on.

Well, depression be gone! I've got my own SAD Lamp now and I'm not afraid to use it.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

DVD Of The Week: Die Hard 4.0 (2007)

The other week I said when watching Daywatch you needed to keep your wits about you to follow the insane storyline; nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to Die Hard 4.0 (aka Live Free Or Die Hard).

This time around the indestructible John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets swept up in a countrywide cyber-terrorism plot to destabilise America over Independence Day weekend.

Mark Bomback's script takes just over 10 minutes to set the scene, then the shooting, running, explosions, vehicular stunts and general OTT mayhem commences and doesn't really let up for the next two hours.

Clearly intended as a "ripped from the headlines" contemporary storyline, Die Hard 4.0 plays like a blend of 24 and James Bond, allowing McClane to tear a swathe of destruction around Washington DC - causing as much, if not more, casual property damage and anarchy as the terrorists themselves.

Paired with Justin Long's terrified hacker Matthew Farrell, McClane wisecracks his way through a mind-blowing succession of set piece stunts with his trademark reliance on dumb luck as he gradually unpicks the complex machinations of Timothy 'Deadwood' Olyphant's villainous Thomas Gabriel.

Bland Gabriel makes the mistake of kidnapping McClane's smokin' hot daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead - recently seen in Death Proof), which gives the bald detective just one more reason to kick his butt.

By the time things reach their inevitable happy - but bloody - conclusion, if you're not sporting a Cheshire cat grin from ear-to-ear you probably shouldn't have been watching a DVD like this in the first place.

Is this is an accurate portrayal of the fragility of America's infrastructure? Is this an object lesson in our over-reliance on technology? Who cares! Die Hard 4.0 is a great big dumb flick that keeps Bruce up there as one of the all time rockin' action kings of Hollywood... long may be reign!

Monday, 5 November 2007

Star Wars Film Night: Caravan Of Courage (An Ewok Adventure) (1984)

"Are there any adult humans in this?" asked Rachel, 25 minutes into Caravan of Courage, highlighting her dislike of child actors (and talking animals) in films.

"How much longer to go?" - 45 minutes in.

"This is possibly the worst film I've ever seen!" - one hour in.

"There was nothing to like about that," she told me when I asked (hopefully) what she'd liked about the 98-minute, made for TV movie, as the credits rolled.

Caravan of Courage follows the quest of two human children and five ewoks across the Forest Moon of Endor to rescue their parents from the Giant Gorax.

Rachel actually conceded that the children were better actors than the two adults who played the mother and father, but her major problems with the film were the lack of decent plot and the truly awful special effects - e.g. the wonky ewok costumes with non-moving lips, the paper mache giant spider and the rather sad blue screening.

I have to confess, watching this film with someone really brought home how bad it is. While you can't fault George Lucas' basic idea of the classic adventure/heroes' journey, the execution - limited by the TV budget - is incredibly poor.

This is ignoring the parts that blatantly clash with the reality established for the ewoks in Return of The Jedi: Wicket and family living on the forest floor; ewoks speaking pidgen English; Earth-type livestock (horses, chickens etc) running around etc

Does make you wonder what Lucas - normally so protective of his Universe - was thinking of; he was executive producer of this shoddy, inter-Saga tale (it's actually set between Empire and Return) after all!

Next week: The Battle of Endor.

The Sarah Jane Adventures: Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane?

Maria Jackson has finally earned her stripes as a potential future companion for Doctor Who.

Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane? is a strange piece of storytelling as the position of main protagonist shifts throughout the two episodes from Sarah Jane to Maria and finally to Maria's dad, Alan (Joseph Millson), but that doesn't stop this being the most layered and mature Sarah Jane Adventure to date.

Superficially Gareth Roberts' script appears to be a cross between a junior version of Hellraiser (with its demonic aliens and puzzle boxes) and the Human Nature two-parter from the third series of New Doctor Who.

After a pleasant day out with her dad, friends and Sarah Jane, Maria awakens to a world that has no recollection of Sarah Jane and her adopted son, Luke.

Things get stranger as Maria discovers a childhood link between the woman now living in Sarah Jane's house (Jane Asher) and the missing reporter.

From the man who brought us The Shakespeare Code (still one of my favourite episodes from the New Who), this is the first Sarah Jane story where it isn't immediately obvious it is a story for children.

The complex plot doesn't patronise or spoon-feed it's audience as Maria is bounced from Earth to a kid-friendly version of Clive Barker's Hell (in fact, more accurately, it's Limbo) then back in time to Sarah Jane's school days.

Let down slightly by the lower effects budget than the main show, this is the best example to date of what The Sarah Jane Adventures can do with its strong cast and a good script.

Even a grating appearance by Maria's mum didn't distract from the story... although the midget 'alien' bounty hunter (the Graske) with the clearly rubber mask does tax the verisimilitude and patience!

The climactic sequence of the Apocalyptic meteor heading to Earth is rather weak as well, but character-wise this sets up the final story (The Lost Boy) of the season, by letting Alan in on his daughter's secret life with Sarah Jane...

Sunday, 4 November 2007

What is Pulp?

The phrase "pulp" has been bandied about on HeroPress - and other sites - quite a lot recently and so rather than try to offer up my own definition, I thought I would share the interpretations of three people whose opinions I value, to help you make up your own mind as to what constitutes "pulp".

However, to start with we'll set a baseline, by quoting from Wikipedia on the subject of pulp magazines (give that what credence you feel it is worth):

"Pulps were the successor to the "penny dreadfuls", "dime novels", and short fiction magazines of the nineteenth century. Although many respected writers wrote for pulps, the magazines are perhaps best remembered for their lurid and exploitative stories, and for their similarly sensational cover art. Modern superhero comic books are sometimes considered descendants of "hero pulps"... the pulps were aimed more at adult readers whereas comic books were traditionally written for children and adolescents."

We'll kick off with Troy 'Doc' Holaday's strong, but well made, points as to why pulp is not a genre, from a discussion of roleplaying games on the Midnight's Lair message boards:

"Writers who worked for the pulps, and were paid almost nothing for it, were generally free to explore and pander to the common man (and woman to some extent). As a result, they came up with a number of stylized story types ... formulas really, that helped them churn out 3-500,000 words a year.

"These story types later became distinctly separate genres in their own right. Science Fiction, South Sea Tales, "Spicy" Fiction, Weird Tales, Daredevil Pilot Stories, Jungle Stories, etc. are all primarily a result of the inventiveness of pulp writers....

"I guess when people talk about the pulp genre (singular) they are talking about some supposed mish-mash of these genres. However, the genres were usually not crossed in the old pulp magazines (though there are a few exceptions, such as Burroughs bringing Tarzan into the Pellucidar tales). They were mostly kept very separate, and had very separate audiences, just as genre fiction generally does today. (Not too many readers are equally devoted to spy stories, who-dunnits, westerns, and space opera.)

"It's a modern conceit that there was such a thing as a monolithic pulp genre thread that contained elements from all of these stylized story types.... I'm so tired of people talking about Spirit of The Century like it's referring back to some established tradition. It and other RPGs of its ilk, are drawing on a plethora of sources that were lumped together by format and to some extent style, not content. That's not a value statement. I don't think what I have said has any bearing on whether SotC is a good or bad game...

"Imagine a television show with elements of The OC, 24, Dresden Files, Friends, Family Guy, and American Chopper all in the same show. In some ways, that would be no less of a weird concept than is proposed byRPGs that are supposedly built on the backs of the pulp genre."

On HeroPress, in last week's Six Of The Best, David Drage - the mastermind behind the Dial P For Pulp podcast, said this:

"Pulp started off covering a wide variety of genre’s and to a certain extent it still does. From science fiction and horror, through hardboiled or noir and on to adventure stories and even romance stories. The whole heroic fantasy/sword and sorcery genre pretty much started with the works of Robert E. Howard. Today the term "pulp" generally refers to somewhat naive adventure, hardboiled detective, and sword and sorcery stories - usually with clear cut good and bad characters, “dames” in distress and dastardly plots!"

And I shall leave the final comments to Jeff Mejia aka The Evil GM, who reignited my dormant childhood passion for this style of storytelling:

"Pulp is about excitement, adventure, fun and escape. More than anything else the pulps were about location. The pulp magazines were in their heyday during the Great Depression. Folks needed to escape from the drudge of daily life.

"The pulps offered this escape to exotic far away places where a man could make a difference. The keyword here is: exotic. Whether the locales were natural; tropical jungles, Arctic wastelands, volcanic islands – or man made; underground labyrinths, lost temples, ancient libraries, hidden tombs, and ruined cities.

"With the right use of description and the proper tone just about any locale can be made mysterious and exotic...

"I think pulp, rather than beginning or ending at a set point, constantly evolve[s] – much like comic books. Comic aficionados have accepted the premise that there are different “ages” that define the comics- 'The Golden Age' 1940s and 50s, 'The Silver Age' of the 60s, 'The Bronze Age' of the 70s etc. I feel the same about pulp."

Pulp, it seems, is all things to all people. But the main thing is, whatever your views, it seems to be something we can all get passionate about and that has to be good thing.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Top Of The Pile: The Immortal Iron Fist #9 & Annual

Over the last few months I've rather bitched and moaned about the general downward spiral of the mainstream Marvel comics in the wake of the awful Civil War debacle.

But outside of their 'core' titles Marvel is still managing to produce some quality titles - including one which is fast becoming my one all-time favourite comics: The Immortal Iron Fist.

This title hit the ground running straight out of the blocks and hasn't looked back, with amazing pulp action scripted by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and out of the ordinary superheroics.

The current storyline sees Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist, The Immortal Weapon of K'un-Lun) in a mystical martial arts contest against the other six Immortal Weapons.

But this is just a cover for his personal quest to seek revenge for the slaying of his mentor Orson Randall (an earlier Iron Fist) by arch-nemesis Davos The Steel Serpent.

A style has been established for this story of counterpointing the main plot with a 'flashback' sequence - drawn by a different artist - filling in some of the backstory of the previous holders of the Iron Fist title.

In the first Immortal Iron Fist Annual, Danny takes a detour to the South of France to interview one of Orson's old colleagues, a journalist named Ernst Erskine.

Here the main story - which involves an attack by the agents of Hydra - is illustrated in the familiar, blocky style of Howard Chaykin while the flashbacks are done in the unique, painted style of Dan Brereton - best known for his Nocturnals line (which I must confess, I don't rate that highly, being, I felt, a triumph of style over content).

The flashbacks are pure pulp though - showing a younger Orson, with his motley gang, sailing over New York in the 1930s in an airship and tangling with such villains as The Nine-Fold Sisters of Xao aka The Harem Harlots of Harlem (Oriental goodtime girls sporting Thompson machine guns).

Reading this title helps me forget that large chunks of the Marvel Universe are going to hell in a handbasket and serves as a gentle reminder of what makes comic books such great fun to read - exotic, cinematic thrills and wild tales told on an unlimited budget with the only limits being the author's imagination.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Our Fourth Anniversary...

It doesn't seem like just four years ago that Rachel and I went from being work colleagues to partners.

I find it difficult these days to remember a time when she wasn't a lynchpin of my life (I guess the fact that she did, indeed, save my life when I had my aneurism, counts for a lot!).

Four years and a day ago, we were just work colleagues, sitting at adjacent desks in the Tunbridge Wells offices of Maxim PR & Marketing, as it was called then.

I had been "seeing" a woman who worked on the local rag, but she was a bit of a "character" (I shall leave it at that euphemism) and after our last comedy date, Rachel sent me an inter-office email saying, words to the effect of: "Not all women are like that, you know".

An exchange of emails, then texts, began and eventually we decided to arrange a date. And the rest, as they say, is history.

We managed to keep it secret from everyone in the office - to keep things simple - until I came down with a severe attack of gout (didn't I tell you what a great catch I am?).

We decided it would be best if I stayed at Rachel's flat for the week, but, in case, Maxim needed to contact me about anything, we had to finally let the cat out of the bag ... to stop people telephoning my flat, not getting an answer and assuming I was off galivanting!

Of course, when Rachel (bravely) broke the news to a packed office at the regular Tuesday meeting (having told the bosses beforehand), several people claimed to have "known" all along - but now it was out in the open and so we didn't mind.

After my spell in hospital, we got engaged on August 8th two year's ago (Rachel's birthday) and married on May 25th this year.

Hooray for us!

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Book Of The Month: Starcross

The arrival of a new Philip Reeve novel is always a cause of great excitement here at HeroPress Towers... and he has yet to disappoint.

While other succesful children's authors who have crossed over into the adult appreciation bracket have tended to let their works grow fat and self-indulgent, Mr Reeves stays trim and on target with his latest: Starcross, a sequel to the wonderful Larklight.

As beautifully presented as the first book, Starcross is the continuing adventures of young Art Mumby and his sister, Myrtle, in their strange, steampunk Victorian universe.

This time their tale involves a time-travelling hotel and the immortal line: "...the British Empire stands on the brink of an invasion by highly intelligent hats from the future!"

Many of the characters from the first story return - as does Myrtle's chaste flirtations with roguish young pirate-turned-secret agent Jack Havock - but there's still plenty of room for new heroes and villains to join the dashing fray.

While Starcross ever-so-slightly lacks the pure 100 per cent magic of the original, being a bit more complex in plot structure, pretty much everything I said about Larklight in April still holds true with this sequel.

It's funny, innocent, exciting, intelligent, peppered with Easter Eggs (such as a clever Star Wars gag and a wonderful cameo by the Clangers) and an easy read for science-fictions of all ages.

A third volume, Moth Storm, is currently scheduled to be out next October (2008).

At The Fleapit: Stardust

Stardust takes the traditional tropes of a fairy tail, dusts them down, gives them a slight 21st Century tweak then plonks them back down in Victorian England to create a wonderful, enchanting tale for all ages.

Based on the novel by the legendary comic book writer Neil Gaiman, with a script by director Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Jonathon Ross' wife) and featuring an incredible cast from Robert De Niro as the strange lightning rustler Captain Shakespeare, the superhot Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil witch Lamia, and Peter O'Toole as the dying king to the cream of British comedy talent in a variety of supporting roles - such as a cameo by Ricky Gervais as, basically, himself and several of the male cast of Green Wing as the ghosts of dead princes.

Amongst all this madness Charlie Cox holds his own as shopboy Tristan on a quest to find a fallen star to help win the heart of the most beautiful maiden in his village (Sienna Miller). He crosses "the wall" that separates his English village from another world and finds himself tangled up in a mess of plots and counter-plots, as witches and princes are also looking for the star... for their own reasons.

A truly magical film that highlights Gaiman's gifts as a storyteller; using the traditional fairytale structure and standards but giving them enough of a new spin to make them feel fresh without ridiculing or parodying them.

At two hours, eight minutes Stardust can seem slightly long, but every part of the script is essential to the story and Vaughn's direction - considering his previous hit was the Daniel Craig gangster flick Layer Cake - is expertly light and shows a real love of his subject matter.

Go, enjoy, take snacks. A real gem.
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